Episode 20

by Rose Bridges,

How would you rate episode 20 of
Nanbaka ?

This whole arc in Nanbaka has been about shifting focus away from the main characters, as our supporting cast takes center stage. We learn about their personalities, motivations, and how they got to Nanba prison, but the show varies in how well it tackles these angles. It still says a lot that it's willing to take such a narrative risk. Nanbaka could have kept the focus on Jyugo's arc, with everyone else kept as shallow caricatures for comedy purposes, but it decided to be more ambitious.

Execution is still an issue though, and I'm not sure how I feel about the series' attempts to deepen Liang and Upa's characters. Learning about their histories with Hachiman's gang doesn't do much to round them out beyond what we already know. They seem to have been recruited for their prodigious fighting skills, so that remains the core of their characters. This backstory mostly helps us to understand why the fight with Hachiman has such an effect on them, as well as why Hachiman keeps beating them effortlessly. He's known all their moves since the beginning, and he's no slouch himself with his immense size and that exploding hammer.

Most of this episode is comprised of fight scenes. They're not always the best animated—but then, Nanbaka rarely is. There's at least a sense of pulse-pounding anticipation as you watch two powerful fighters face off, but the overall episode feels tonally inconsistent to the rest of Nanbaka. The show normally excels at juggling comedy and drama in its darker episodes; even if the actual comedy isn't all that funny, a good mix of the two succeeds at keeping things relatively lighthearted. This week, Nanbaka was dark from start to finish, save for some wacky Nico moments near the beginning. Since they don't blend well, these feel more like interruptions than bits of levity. Overall though, this change in tone is refreshing enough to really raise the stakes.

I was a bit confused at what exactly Hachiman's motivations are. I can't remember if the show ever clarifies this, but is he a part of Enki's coup? Or is he an independent actor who happens to be at the right place at the right time? It felt like he was most interested in getting his best fighters back under his wing, but I can't for the life of me see why he would care about being Enki's underling. Hachiman seems to prefer doing his own thing, for his own goals. He especially enjoys creating the sickest and cruelest weapons possible, so being able to boss around others would help him in that endeavor.

One element that seemed odd to me—at first—was the focus on Hachiman's love of poison. The episode spends a lot of time developing his gang's resident herbalist, how he moved from creating medicines to Hachiman's personal drug weapons. Hachiman uses drugs and poison to disable many of his opponents, but unfortunately for him, this backfires when he tries his poisons on Nico at the end of the episode. Not only does Nico survive the poison, but Hachiman's related maneuver at the end (to deprive him of his prescribed drugs) will definitely come back to haunt him.

I had never given much thought to Nico's need for drugs, especially compared to all of Nanbaka's other mysteries. It fit too well into the anime character cliché of the "sickly" character, so I figured it was just another one of his quirks. It turns out that these are psychiatric drugs Nico takes to suppress his alternate personality, which is apparently an out-of-control, psychopathic murderer. The final shot of the "other Nico" awakening is downright eerie. It's like the cherry on top of a relentlessly bleak episode.

It's clear from this moment that Hachiman is basically done. Nico's power is something he doesn't understand—unlike qigong—and now he's got the look of murder in his eyes. We've already seen him achieve surprising physical feats in his regular form, so who can guess what Psycho!Nico is like? The real question going forward how the other characters will fare from this change. The next episode preview suggests that Psycho!Nico just goes after anyone in his path, friend or foe. The other characters will probably have to band all their strength together to defeat him, but what will that defeat look like?

It's one hell of a cliffhanger, that's for sure. Nanbaka really needs that kind of tension in an arc like this, which is reaching "New Year's tournament" levels of drawn-out and repetitive. At least the raw material here is stronger. An episode like this one, upping the ante and shifting the focus considerably, showed that Nanbaka still has some tricks up its sleeve.

Rating: B

Nanbaka is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.

Rose is a music Ph.D. student who loves overanalyzing anime soundtracks. Follow her on her media blog Rose's Turn, and on Twitter.

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